Township 13 South, Range 92 West, Section 35

A home of mysteries and restless souls

  • The high desert mesa above Paonia, once home to the Foote family.

    JT Thomas
  • An abandoned present-day house at Foote Fields.

    JT Thomas
  • An abandoned present-day house at Foote Fields.

    JT Thomas
  • An abandoned present-day house at Foote Fields.

    JT Thomas
  • Elizabeth Foote (marked with an asterisk) in a Paonia High School class picture.

    JT Thomas
  • Elizabeth's tombstone in the Bethlehem Cemetery.

    JT Thomas
  • The author and her daughter, Sylvia.

    JT Thomas

Page 3

July 28, 1924, dawned warm and sunny, with a hint of rain in the distance. Early that Monday morning, George and Mary Foote must have realized that their oldest daughter was not in her bed. They knew Elizabeth was prone to sleepwalking, so they probably looked upstairs and downstairs, hoping to find her curled up in a corner. Maybe they sent young Dan, who had just turned 12, into the nearest fields, to see if his sister had wandered outside in the night. Nothing.

I imagine the Footes kept looking for a while, hoping Elizabeth would come strolling out of the junipers, rubbing her eyes. Maybe, after an hour or so, George rode his horse down the mesa and over the canal to the closest house, where he put out the word that his 25-year-old daughter Elizabeth, dutiful Elizabeth, was missing.

The canal. The Fire Mountain Canal was a local wonder, a 31-mile-long, 10-foot-wide irrigation ditch that snaked around the border of the Foote land. In 1896, when the town was little more than a decade old, dozens of farmers and hired laborers had begun shoveling and dynamiting their way along the mesas on the north side of the valley, slowly carving a three-foot-deep trench into the rocky, close-packed hillside. Local farmers had even labored through the winters, waiting for thaws to melt the snow and soften the ground. The canal took five years to complete, but when it was done, it was by far the largest irrigation ditch in the valley, an artery of river water that turned 10,000 acres of desert into productive farmland.

That Monday morning, more than 40 neighbors joined the search for Elizabeth. 1924 was, in many ways, a furtive, nasty year in the valley. Prohibition was in full force, but rumors circulated that booze "flowed as free as water" in town. Marijuana made a local appearance ("The weed, converted into cigarettes, is declared to have a more powerful effect than the rankest moonshine liquor," wrote the scandalized editor of the local newspaper, in what may have served as an unintentional advertisement.) The night before Elizabeth disappeared, the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross on the hill above Grand Avenue as a warning to bootleggers, drawing a curious crowd from the chautauqua festivities.

The search party might have included coal miners and cattlemen, Klansmen and immigrant fruit-pickers. They must have been used to ignoring disagreements in the face of emergencies, for life-threatening misadventures and illnesses were common. People fell from their horses and from stacks of hay, were lost in snowstorms, and got into bloody buggy wrecks and car crashes and knife fights. They died in coal mine cave-ins and contracted diphtheria, smallpox and typhoid.

So the searchers were likely accustomed to assuming the worst. They might have reassured a distraught Mary Foote, telling her that Elizabeth was sure to turn up by midday. Led by George Foote, they might have combed the mesa, marching through hayfields and juniper scrub, feigning confidence that Elizabeth had suffered nothing worse than a sprained ankle and a bad scare. But as the morning dragged on, and the July sun grew hotter, the searchers probably admitted to each other what they had all been thinking. It was time to drain the Fire Mountain Canal.

By the end of the day, I imagine, the job was done. The diversion gates upstream were closed, and the proud canal was an empty, muddy trench. Yet there was still no sign of Elizabeth Foote.

On Tuesday morning, an elderly man by the last name of Peterson was walking alongside the canal, well downstream from the Foote homestead. Maybe he was taking his usual morning constitutional, or maybe he was wondering why the canal had suddenly gone dry. He saw a large, wet bundle lying among the rocks at the bottom of the ditch, and as he came nearer, he was horrified to realize that it was a body. Frightened, he went no closer but rushed to a nearby house, where he told rancher Arthur Purtee what he had seen.

Purtee recruited some neighbors and led them to the canal, where they gathered up the bloated body of Elizabeth Foote. Since her disappearance two nights earlier, she had floated eight miles from home.

The county coroner ruled the death a suicide "due to a temporary derangement," but the family disagreed. Elizabeth had been clearing a plot of land near the canal on Saturday, and George and Mary Foote believed that on Sunday night, she had dreamed of her work, risen from her bed, and walked several hundred feet to the edge of the canal in her sleep, determined to turn water on to the newly open ground. When she fell into the frigid canal water, family and friends said, the shock must have stopped her heart, or caused her to panic and drown.

The funeral service was held two days later, on Thursday morning, at the Foote home on the mesa. They buried Elizabeth in tiny Bethlehem Cemetery, a short walk from Foote Fields and the Fire Mountain Canal.

Just a few years after her death, the Footes sold the corner of their land that I live on today. George, Mary and their daughter Barbara stayed in the valley; Susan married and moved to California, Antoinette to Denver; Dan fought in World War II, then moved to southern Idaho. Today, George, Mary and Barbara are buried beside Elizabeth; Dan, the baby of the family, lies nearby next to his wife. Close by the Foote graves are the plots of friends and neighbors: the Hammonds, the Frys, the Roatcaps, the Bruces. On that long-ago Monday in July, many here must have helped search for Elizabeth.

I ask around town, but few people remember any stories about the Foote family; most barely remember the name. No one remembers any talk of Elizabeth, the home-loving girl with the serious face. So many people drowned back then, old-timers tell me. Babies fell into irrigation ditches, skaters slipped into icy reservoirs, houses washed away when the river suddenly changed course. Elizabeth was just one of many who vanished. Only she knew whether she fell, or whether she jumped.

One afternoon this past summer, Glena Ballentine, a descendant of one of the valley's pioneer families, unlocks the town museum for me. While I search the files for scraps about the Footes, she thumbs through an autograph book, donated by a local high school graduate, and hands it to me. The open page reads:

Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
If the Devil don't get you
St. Peter must

Yours as a classmate
Dan Foote 1930

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